What Do You Mean I Can Learn From a Fossil?

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SWBAT analyze articles to determine the complexities and required skills of recovering fossils.

Big Idea

What we can learn from fossils? Dig 'em up, put 'em together, figure it out.


5 minutes

As students enter the room, I show them several pictures of fossilized bones that are still encased in rock.  I like to use this Fossil Images Powerpoint because it loops repeatedly to allow students to look at these images as the enter the room.

I enjoy using relevant images or an intriguing question projected on the screen.  Middle school students, in my experience, seem to be more engaged by pictures or puzzles than more standard review/preview questions so I try to use this to my advantage as much as possible. This technique allows students to get a closer look at the images as they settle in and/or to begin discussing what they see.  Additionally, this puts students into a focused state of mind as they wonder about why those particular images are being displayed and they are typically ready to begin as soon as class starts.

I ask students to describe in their science logs their ideas on how scientists would go about digging up the bones and moving them safely to a museum for further study. I also ask students to identify what skills/qualities they believe a person would need to have to be a skilled fossil hunter.  I typically give students 5 minutes to reflect and write on their own before having them share with a partner or lab group.  This allows all students time to process the question and develop answers that are appropriate to their ability level.  As they share, students should add ideas to their list so they benefit from the collective intelligence of the group. When the groups are done discussing, I ask each table to share one thing from their list without repeating what any prior group has said. This encourages active listening.

This lesson applies to NGSS performance expectation MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past. Analyzing and interpreting evidence is the focal Science and Engineering Practice, with the Cross Cutting Concept of Patterns.


30 minutes

Following the opening discussion, I show the following video clip from the American Museum of Natural History that briefly describes the process of finding and unearthing a dinosaur fossil. 

I give the articles "How To Collect Fossilized Dinosaurs" and "Prepping and Analyzing Fossils" to the students and provide them time to read and take notes using the Note Taking Guide we began using in the prior unit Biodiversity and Spiders (see activity portion of Human Impact lesson). When using articles in class, I like to have students work in small groups of 2 or 3 to allow them to share their knowledge and support each other.  I find that this helps most middle school students pay more attention to what they are reading and take the assignment seriously.  This Student Notes Example demonstrates how to complete the chart.  It is the completion of the third column, questions/comments/connections, that really helps the students retain the information.  They will want to skip that part as it requires active thinking on their part but students who take the time to fill in that column seem to have a much stronger understanding of the material presented in the reading.

Based on what they learn from the articles, students should identify several possible job opportunities for a fossil expedition:

  • Prospecting – determining where fossils will likely be found, scouting an area, and finding the fossils based on clues in the area.  This would take someone with extreme patience, and a flare for adventure; the person should have a personaluity driven by that sense of discovery.
  • Jacketing – once a fossil has been found, it needs to be minimally exposed, extracted, and protected in a jacket of plaster for transport.  This job would take a person who is extremely careful as this process can make or break a fossil-find.
  • Preparation – when a fossil is brought to the lab, mechanical tools and chemicals are used to isolate the fossil from its matrix with the least amount of disturbance possible for the analysis to come.  The person carrying out this function should be task-oriented and patient with great attention to detail. 
  • Identification – Fossils come in varying states of wholeness.  Knowledgeable minds are needed to identify the bones to the species (or to realize the differences that would identify a new species!)  The person doing this job would need a deductive mind and be extremely knowledgeable of the information gathered on dinosaurs to this point.
  • Analysis – once a fossil is isolated and identified, scientists can analyze it draw conclusions beyond the immediate fossil, such as behaviors, conditions of life, and new insights into the body and structure of the animal.  Such a person should have an analytical mind that can make connections between structure, function, behavior, etc.  Beyond this, the person should have an open mind to new insights and discoveries that might challenge established theories.


Based on this information, I have students create a full page want ad targeting people needed for a fossil hunting expedition to the Gobi Desert.  Their ad should include the specific job title they are seeking and the personality traits desired for each job. The goal of this assignment is for students to be creative as they apply the information presented in the readings, therefore I would not present students with the above list (other than the titles) as it will force them to infer the necessary information from the readings.  The following Want Ad Student Examples show the variety of ideas students can have even though working with the same content - that is what I love about creative opportunities!

The Common Core connection is W.8.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience while students develop SP8, specifically 

  • Critically read scientific texts adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas and/or obtain scientific and/or technical information to describe patterns in and/or evidence about the natural and designed world(s).
  • Gather, read, and synthesize information from multiple appropriate sources and assess the credibility, accuracy, and possible bias of each publication and methods used, and describe how they are supported or not supported by evidence. 
  • Communicate scientific and/or technical information (e.g. about a proposed object, tool, process, system) in writing and/or through oral presentations.


10 minutes

To conclude this lesson I ask the students which of the jobs they feel they would be best suited for and why (what skills do they have that would make them a good fit for that position).  I have the students record their answers in their science journals.